The week after Hamilton debuted on Disney+, Kyle and Mary Herschelman and I were enthusiastically gushing over everything we loved about the musical, admitting how many times we had watched it and debating exactly how obnoxious the rest of the editorial staff would find it if we started listening to the soundtrack on repeat in the newsroom. The conversation turned to what our favorite song from the musical was, with each of us wavering because none of us could narrow it down to just one.
Anyone who has been in the Hillsboro office knows that the newsroom is an open format. As such, it isn’t unusual for us (the editorial staff) to have open discussions. Each person piping up from their desk space with an opinion or well-timed and generally humorous witticism. As happens in a room full of writers, our less-than-serious conversations quickly escalate into a raillery of wit, with each person’s response purposefully more ridiculous than the last.
We can all roll our chairs and swivel around to view each other, but I rarely turn around when responding. I think the delivery of not looking up from my computer screen adds a layer of humor to my generally outlandish replies. There is another reason I don’t like to turn around though. Sometimes, as my peers’ disembodied voices float throughout the space, I like to stop and really be present and grateful for where I am. In those moments I purposefully recount all of the reasons that I shouldn’t be in the room. I think about myself as a child and all of the obstacles that should have hindered me and the reasons they didn’t. I think about all the little moments and people who shaped the path that would lead me to that desk, and how little it takes to change the course of a child’s life.
I’ve been thinking about my childhood a lot lately. I think that’s partly why my favorite song from the Hamilton soundtrack, at the moment, is “Dear Theodosia.” I always think about my childhood at this time of year, because for the past three (going on four) years my summers have been consumed by Imagine Hillsboro’s Back to School Clothing Drive/Store. Of all of the projects I work on, the Back to School Store is the one that is closest to my heart. I would wager that is true for each of the people who return yearly to organize the store. The core committee spends a lot of time together the week of the store, and one of the things that often strikes me when we are all together is that while the pictures differ, life has presented each of us with overwhelming hardships. Yet in many ways, these seemingly insurmountable adversities are what brought us together, and without them the free clothing shop would likely never have existed.
We each have our own reasons, but for me the seeds of the store were planted when I was an elementary school student. To say my childhood was traumatic would be an understatement. The thing I learned as an abused child is that it is easier for people not to look at you than to help. Their eyes slide over the bruises on your face and the pain in your eyes, erasing your existence and relegating you to little more than white noise in the back of their minds. As an adult, I discovered the complexities and flaws in our justice system that lead people to put on blinders. It’s hard to look at abuse when you feel powerless to change it. Anyone who has reported an incident of child abuse or assault knows firsthand of the ways in which our laws too often fail to protect the most vulnerable, and tie the hands of those who would help. It’s hard to stomach and in some ways it hurts less not to see. Some people have to see; life didn’t give us the option to not look. But some people choose to see and in doing so take back their power to make a difference.
I remember the first time I was really seen. It was by my fifth grade teacher Rose Rappe. At that point, it had been about a year-and-a-half since the worst abuses had begun and it would be another three years before my grandparents came to rescue me. I can’t recall the circumstances leading up to the interaction anymore than I can explain her motivations, but she very discreetly asked me to stay after school. At the end of the day she took me out to the car and gave me a bag of clothing that her daughter had outgrown.
I still remember how much I cherished every one of those items. It wasn’t because they were nicer than anything I owned, though they were, they symbolized a different life than the one I was given. More importantly they symbolized that there were people who lived the kind of lives I could only fantasize about, that saw me and cared. Wearing them was a tangent reminder that if I could just keep my head down and survive, I could create any life I wanted when I grew up.
Mrs. Rappe planted a seed that day. I imagine it felt small at that moment, but the thing about change is that all you are ever asked to do is to plant seeds. On an ordinary day, in the parking lot of a small rural school she unknowingly planted a seed that would not only shape my future path but would grow to clothe and shoe hundreds of children in the district she dedicated her career to.
I had (and continue to have) a lot of exceptional teachers, both formally and informally, throughout my life. The commonalities that every single one of them has passed on to their students are to pay attention (to observe) and to be prepared. Right now everything seems to be in upheaval, and I find myself falling on those core lessons more and more. Especially in the moments when I feel fear and anxiety kicking in. I think that all any of us can do right now is to pay attention and prepare.
As the Back to School committee is preparing for this year’s store it feels like the obstacles against us are insurmountable, and I find myself feeling like that scared little girl being handed a bag of clothes in the parking lot.
I am so afraid.
I am afraid that holding the store is the wrong move, that people may get sick. Yet, I am equally afraid of not holding the store. I am afraid for the children living lives that parallel my childhood and what it means for them to have school, often their only safe space, not available. I am afraid of another year of remote learning for them. I am afraid because our donations and funding are substantially less than years past. I am afraid that we won’t have enough seeds, in a year that planting them will likely be more important than ever.
In those moments of fear, I often find myself thinking about Mrs. Rappe and that day in the parking lot. Because of her seeds as well as the adversity they were planted in, I can’t look at any of the children in our community without feeling drawn to, “bleed and fight for them. To make things right for them.” Even when, as Miranda writes in the reprise of Dear Theodosia (which was cut from the filmed version) “It (futilely) seems like (bleeding and fighting is) all we do.”